State of Engineering Collaboration - Insights From James Musser
October 23, 2020
This article is part of CoLab's new State of Engineering Collaboration Series which will interview a diverse mix of mechanical engineering professionals and industry thought leaders with a goal of better understanding the day to day challenges engineers face and to keep a pulse on the trends that will shape the profession in the years ahead.
James is a Mechanical Engineer/CAD Specialist with 10 years of general engineering experience and is currently one of 3,300 SolidWorks users worldwide with CSWE expert level certification from Dassault Systemes. He’s been working with local, domestic, and international clients for the past 4 and a half years as a freelance engineer.
1.) Why did you choose mechanical engineering as a profession?
Honestly, I wasn't really sure of what I wanted to do for a long time when I was gearing up for college. I started with a biomedical engineering major but eventually switched to mechanical engineering. I wasn't all that mechanically inclined, but I was good at math and science, so I wanted to play toward my strengths while also taking on a challenging major. So, I ultimately landed with mechanical engineering. I'm not sure that I was ever a natural fit for it but the more I got into the field, the more I started to appreciate it.
Product design is kind of the "fun" side of engineering, so I'm glad I was eventually able to work my way into that area. I have a lot of experience working in manufacturing environments, so that industrial engineering experience made the transition to product design go a bit more smoothly.
2.) What excites you most about your work as a mechanical engineer?
What I really appreciate about engineering in general is that no two days are identical. The job revolves around problem solving, and while there will be similar issues that crop up, it's always going to be something that's new in some way. For me, it feels like that really helps to break up the monotony of work. There's a constant challenge to figure out a good solution to problems that arise, and a need to continue bettering yourself as an engineer - rounding out your weaker areas and becoming more knowledgeable in all the sub-fields of the profession, all the while also improving on your strengths. The field of engineering in general feels like a bottomless pit of information - you could spend a thousand years studying it and still not learn it all (especially considering that it is constantly evolving). But that also means that you'll never really stop learning new things as you continue to specialize in specific areas.
For me, that really helps to keep it from being boring. Like any job, there are going to be days where you want to rip your hair out. I always kind of look at it like this - if you're getting a 50/50 ratio of joy to misery at any given job, that's about as good as it's going to get. Not many jobs can reach that kind of balance for me, but I do feel that mechanical engineering fits the bill.
3.) How have you seen the way engineers collaborate evolve over the past few years?
Particularly with the onset of Covid-19, obviously, there has been a much more ubiquitous use of long-distance collaboration tools. But even before this year, I've worked with a mix of local and long-distance clients for long enough to know that there really is just virtually nothing that can no longer be done long-distance in the modern age. Using screen share to review a 3D model/assembly is, for all practical intents and purposes, the equivalent of having multiple colleagues sit around a computer monitor and review something in person. Remote control options are also the long-distance equivalent of handing over your computer mouse to a colleague to have them run the show. Video calls can also be very helpful if there is a physical part involved.
Long story short, the use of screen share, remote control, and video calls will essentially cover 99% of the communication needs for almost any project. Given the tools that we have at our disposal now, excluding certain manufacturing environments and reverse engineering tasks, there are many engineering jobs that can be done just as well from home as they can be done from the office.
4.) What are the top challenges you face when it comes to design review?
Reviewing a design in terms of functionality - obviously, it is very important to ensure that all the desired functionality of any given design is fully present and reliable for the application. Rapid prototyping is very useful in general for this type of review.
Reviewing a design in terms of simplicity - Generally speaking, the simpler a design, the better. Provided that this doesn't result in a loss of functionality, it is always important to review that a design has been made as straightforward as possible. This can have a dramatic impact on overall costs (assembly/manufacturing etc.). Complexity has its place, but only when absolutely necessary.
Reviewing a design in terms of "manufacturability" - one of the other key review areas is ensuring that a design is fully "manufacturable." A fully functioning prototype is not very useful if it cannot be replicated via high volume production (for example, a part that can be 3D printed but cannot be injection molded is very unlikely to pan out).
It's important to try and find a happy middle ground between the 3 criteria above, which is easier said than done.
5.) What are the top 3-5 mistakes companies make when it comes to making it easy for their engineers to collaborate?
Not keeping open lines of communication - It can sometimes be shocking how many problems take place in the modern workforce just because the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. I'm reminded of a past job wherein a small building was made around an outdoor pump. Just because a single phone call wasn't made, the door to the building ultimately ended up directly in front of the pump, as opposed to where it should've been, 3-4 feet off to the side. You'd open the door, and the 2' x 2' x 4' long pump was right there, an inch away from the threshold. Every time you wanted to enter the building, you had to go one leg at a time so you could step over the pump. Unless you want people to associate your company with circus music, it's important that all efforts are made to keep team members up to speed on current developments.
Having an atmosphere where "dumb questions" exist - I feel that one of the worst things someone in management can do is to shoot down a question for being obvious or dumb. Not only does this sow the seeds of resentment, but it's counterproductive in many ways. This can have a chilling effect on future meetings and ultimately result in future communication failures. For instance, someone that has had a question shot down in the past is less likely to ask a question in the future, even if they're not understanding the things being discussed. Other people involved in the same meeting may also feel less inclined to ask a question. The net result is that fewer questions are asked, more things are misinterpreted, and more preventable mistakes take place.
Mandating a multitude of in person meetings - Sometimes, in person meetings can be a productive means of communication. Other times, there are some jobs where 80% of an engineer's day is spent in meetings, and not a whole lot of actual work gets done. I'd highly recommend being open to exploring other options, such as video/screen share calls, email threads, slack threads etc.
6.) What best practices would you recommend companies adopt to improve the way their engineers collaborate?
Firstly, solve the 3 issues I mentioned above. Keep everyone involved in the project up to speed on current events, and put in your best effort to confirm that everyone is on the same page. There are so many problems that can be avoided with a quick phone call or email.
Maintain a working environment where no one is afraid to ask a question (no matter how obvious the answer may seem) as an extra safeguard against communication issues.
Don't hold in person meetings as the only acceptable form of team communication. Video/screen share conference calls can do the job more conveniently, and many times, email chains may communicate enough information on their own such that a meeting is no longer required. Companies should be open to using whatever form of communication gets the point across while requiring the minimum amount of time and effort on the part of the participants.
Provide a department with enough engineers and resources to succeed - This isn't a problem that is limited to the engineering profession, but is more of a universal business practice that has been gaining prominence as of late. There is a push for squeezing the absolute maximum efficiency out of a department and employees, rather than a focus on results. You can't drive a car for a thousand miles on a single gallon of gas, no matter how efficient you make the engine. Many issues cannot be resolved with higher work efficiency - they require more resources. That may be time, manpower, or something more. Either way, efficiency is an important part of the equation, but it's important to remember that it is not the end all be all.
Listen to the feedback and concern of your company's engineers - All of this sounds like it should be an unspoken, universally agreed upon truth, but it unfortunately does need to be said - I would encourage companies to listen to and heed their engineers' advice. I've seen too many work environments where feedback is ignored due to it potentially causing time delays, changing a design's look or feel, or being otherwise inconvenient in some way. This should be particularly non-negotiable when it comes to issues of safety. A company is paying their engineer for that advice, so it's in their best interests to listen.
7.) What are the top 3 trends you see shaping the future of mechanical engineering? How can engineers prepare for this future?
Working from home - I suspect that Covid-19 and the year 2020 have accelerated this shift, but it seems likely that working from home will become a much more normal occurrence at many companies in the near future. There are a lot of benefits to this and I think that many of the expected downsides have been exposed as myths this year.
A larger percentage of a digital workspace - With the advent of CAD software, we're already pretty deep into this development, so that's not anything necessarily new. I would just expect that, outside of manufacturing facilities, there will be an increasingly large focus on the digital aspect of engineering. This will necessitate learning new tools and new systems, but that has always been a part of engineering, in one form or another.
More online collaboration - due to how much more convenient it is, I do think we're going to see an increase in how much communication/collaboration ends up taking place long-distance. This can allow for international teams to work together with the vast majority of the distance problems removed from the equation. That's a net win for everyone involved.